Heavy rains soak South Florida ahead of likely Tropical Storm Alex

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Heavy rains from what is expected to be Tropical Storm Alex dumped several inches of rain in South Florida, where a tropical storm warning was in effect late Friday.

The National Hurricane Center said aircraft data indicates the system in the southeastern Gulf of Mexico changed little over several hours Friday as it drenched southwestern Cuba. The system is expected to become Tropical Storm Alex by early Saturday, the hurricane center said at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

Forecasters said South Florida could get between 4 and 8 inches of rain, with some isolated areas getting as much as 12 inches of rain.

By 5:30 p.m. Friday, the majority of southeast Florida had already seen 2 to 3 inches of rain, the National Weather Service said, with as much as 6 inches over parts of western Collier County, including the Marco Island and Naples areas.

Fort Lauderdale is expected to get an additional 5.5 to 9 inches by Saturday night, and Miami will see between 3 and 7 additional inches of rain. West Palm Beach could get between 4 and 8 additional inches.

Despite the expected heavy rainfall and potential for flooding, the South Florida Water Management District said the region is prepared to handle the storm.

“Our grounds are not overly saturated at this point,” said Randy Smith, spokesman for the SFWMD. “We’re in a really good situation, not that you ever want a storm of 8 to 12 inches of rain. But if you had the scenario that’s probably best to handle it, we’re probably there right now.”

The National Hurricane Center, in its 8 p.m. Friday update, kept half the state under the tropical storm warning with a growing system expected to become Tropical Storm Alex, the Atlantic’s first named storm of 2022.

The system could slightly strengthen before reaching Florida, the hurricane center said.

As of 8 p.m. Friday, the system had sustained tropical-storm-force winds of 40 mph, and was located about 95 miles north of the western tip of Cuba and about 300 miles southwest of Fort Myers while moving north at 7 mph. Tropical-storm-force winds extend 175 miles to the east of the center.

“Data from an Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft indicate that the circulation associated with the disturbance has become a little better defined over the Gulf of Mexico north of the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula,” the hurricane center said.

The National Weather Service said the system’s maximum sustained winds are expected to reach 45 mph by the time it makes landfall on Florida’s west coast.

The system has yet to organize its circulation to be a named storm.

“On the forecast track,” the hurricane center said, “the system should move across the southeastern Gulf of Mexico through tonight, across the southern and central portions of the Florida Peninsula on Saturday, and then over the southwestern Atlantic north of the northwestern Bahamas Saturday afternoon through Sunday.”

The tropical storm warning now runs on the Gulf Coast from the middle of Longboat Key on the Sarasota-Manatee County border south, including all of the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas, and then along Florida’s east coast to the Brevard-Volusia County line as well as Lake Okeechobee.

All of South Florida remains under a flood watch through Sunday morning, the National Weather Service Miami said.

In Miami-Dade County, the Biscayne Bay shoreline may see storm surges of 1 to 2 feet above ground about the time of high tide, according to the National Weather Service’s update.

The hurricane center predicted the system’s wind speeds will reach a maximum of 50 mph by Sunday evening.

The South Florida Water Management District is optimistic about its ability to handle the predicted rainfall amounts.

The SFWMD manages water from Orlando to the Florida Keys, and has been lowering canal levels in South Florida for days in preparation of a possible onslaught of rain.

“We’re doing the same thing on the southwest coast as we are in Martin, Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade (counties),” Smith said.

Smith said water levels are in good condition starting with Lake Okeechobee, which is at 12.5 feet, right where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers likes it heading into hurricane season. Smith said the SFWMD is like the “interstate of canals” when it comes to water management.

“You have all of the feeder canals that are the smaller roads and highways that feed into the Water Management District canals,” he said. “Then we take that water and move it out into the ocean, so everything is moving to the east. And we do that by gravity, moving water from the west, where the elevation is a little higher, to the east, and by using mechanical methods like the big pumping stations.”

Smith said nature has also helped prepare South Florida for the coming rain.

“We are in a good situation in that it’s been fairly dry up until the last few days,” he said. “We don’t have any problematic areas that we’re concerned about.”

Smith said residents should make sure storm drains are clear.

If the drains are not clear “you need to report it and people will come out and clean it up right away,” he said. “It sounds so simple, but that has been an issue in the past with clogged storm water drains that create unnecessary flooding when it could have been easily avoided.”

The system is expected to cross the state and into the Atlantic Ocean during the early part of the day on Saturday. It is lopsided, with the heaviest rain and strongest wind gusts to the east and south of its center, the National Weather Service said.

Fort Lauderdale and Miami are both included in the area expected to have the highest potential of flash flooding through Saturday, according to the National Weather Service. West Palm Beach has a moderate potential for flooding.

Winds Friday and Saturday have the potential to damage trees and power lines and cause power outages. Isolated tornadoes are also possible late Friday and into Saturday, according to the National Weather Service Miami.

Storm surges from Marco Island to Card Sound Bridge could reach between 1 and 3 feet, 1 to 2 feet from central Longboat Key to Marco Island and the Keys and Charlotte Harbor, forecasters said.

A system officially becomes a tropical storm when its maximum sustained winds are between 39 mph and 73 mph. Systems become hurricanes when the maximum sustained winds are 74 mph or greater.

“We kind of think the main thing that people need to focus on from this system is the rain, and it looks like the highest chance for flooding rainfall from this will be over the southern third of the state of Florida, so roughly anywhere from Naples to Vero Beach and on southward, that’s what appears to be at this point the most likely areas to see some very heavy rainfall,” said AccuWeather senior meteorologist Dan Kottlowski.

Elsewhere, the low pressure system located east of Florida, about 200 miles west-southwest of Bermuda, has revived a bit as it continues to move east, away from the United States. It has again been given a 10% chance of developing into a tropical system in the next 48 hours and the next five days. On Thursday afternoon it was given a near zero chance of developing.

“This system only has a brief window for further development today before environmental conditions become increasingly unfavorable by this weekend,” the NHC said. “This system is expected to move generally eastward to the south of Bermuda.”

This is a La Niña year, meaning water temperatures will be warmer than usual and there’s less wind shear to tear apart storms.

Warm water temperatures are an optimal factor in tropical storm and hurricane development. Current water temperatures are about one to two degrees higher than average for this time of year, AccuWeather Meteorologist Jake Sojda said.

Hurricane season officially started on June 1 and ends Nov. 30.